Life in Istanbul can feel like either being in a video game or being in a birdcage. The city is so big and congested that you need to strategize on how to get around, or else you hang out within the same few blocks. I decided quite early on that if I wanted to be sane and happy in Istanbul, commuting wasn’t really an option. I wanted to be able to walk from home to work.
I live in a little area of the Beyoğlu district called Tophane. It feels more like living in a village than in a big, modern city. The area is named after an armory that was built by Sultan Mehmed II after he conquered Constantinople in 1453. Today the armory is a prestigious cultural center. I opened my gallery, Rodeo, in Tophane in 2007. It was the first to open here.
Tophane lies in the zone between Galata Tower, in the Karaköy quarter, and the now-trendy Cihangir neighborhood. But Tophane is actually a very Turkish neighborhood, unlike the areas around it. It’s traditional and conservative. Back in 2007 it was even more so. There was nothing here but butchers, cafés, barbershops, and tiny lokantas (Turkish bistros). I used to walk out my door and see guys butcher sheep in the street.
I chose to locate the gallery in Tophane because rents were very affordable, and I found a beautiful space in an old tobacco warehouse. The neighborhood felt right for an art gallery. It was funky and a little gritty, and the low rents attracted creative types.
Now the neighborhood has become a magnet for real estate developers—rents are soaring, and some of the old character is disappearing. You have boutique hotels, trendy design stores, fancy shoe shops, you name it, moving in. I can’t help but hate the change, even though I know I am one of the reasons that the change is happening.
When I opened Rodeo, there were no truly international galleries in Istanbul; the concept was exotic. There were art centers and museums and private collections, but Rodeo was the first individual effort to show and sell work by Turkish and non-Turkish artists. And we did that with very few paintings on our walls. People would ask, “Who are these odd painters you are showing?” So naturally, it took a while to build an audience. Today we work with emerging talents like the Egyptian painter Anna Boghiguian and the Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou.
I spend a lot of time talking to the artists I represent. We discuss at great length what each of their works means, how it should be presented, how it can be sold. This is hard, especially when collectors are confronted with new languages and new ways of thinking. It’s my job to hold the collectors’ hands and make sure the introductions are not intimidating. The gallery has, in a way, created its own geography, one that stretches from Cairo to New York to Istanbul.
I like to think Rodeo was a driving force in making Istanbul the art city it has become today. Tophane is now a neighborhood that people visit specifically to see art, whether it’s at the Istanbul Modern museum or at smaller galleries like Rodeo. I’m proud of that.
As told to Lawrence Osborne. This appeared in the May/June 2012 issue. Photo by Metin Oner.
See all of Sylvia Kouvali’s favorite places in Istanbul:
Karaköy Lokantasi Restaurant
Hiç Contemporary Crafts
Kiliç Ali Paşa Complex
The Istanbul Modern
Marquise Dance Hall
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